September 18, 2020

Commentary: Toward a more perfect union


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Keith SimmondsBy Dr Keith Simmonds From West Indies News Network
Since the nation’s 31st anniversary of independence I have been asking myself a simple question: “How well is the St. Kitts-Nevis federation progressing toward a more perfect union?” Indeed, the nation has progressed on some fronts (e.g. increasing educational opportunities for its youth), but stepped backwards on others, such as the unprincipled behavior of refusing to table the no confidence vote for some 22 months now. Believing that 21st century Kittitians and Nevisians are serious about increased democratization I decided to reflect on ways in which St. Kitts-Nevis can progress toward full implementation of democratic ideals.
One article won’t give a complete answer, but I choose here to focus on one sure way to progress toward attaining a more genuine practice of democratic ideals, which is: changing our electoral system from winner-takes-all (WTA) to a full representation system, commonly called proportional representation (PR). I am heartened that, increasingly, knowledgeable fellow political scientists and other Caribbean political observers are recommending PR for English speaking Caribbean countries, but I have not seen any who has taken the time to lay out a practical approach to PR in countries like St. Kitts-Nevis. I wish, therefore, to explain in somewhat simple terms a workable PR system for St. Kitts-Nevis.
Background and Problems with WTA
At the core of legislative representation in democratic societies is the concept of majoritarianism or majority rule; that is, a political party or organized coalition of parties always maintains a legislative majority. If at any time that party fails to maintain a majority it must resign within five days. The ruling party achieves its majority through a competitive election, which gives it either a majority over the other party or parties in the legislative body. The minority party or parties in opposition must wait its (or their) turn to become the majority party and dominate the political process during its term in office. The ruling majority party may enjoy dominance for as long as it is capable of winning and maintaining a majority of legislative seats.
Most countries today adopt some variation of proportional representation. Currently, 95% of the European Union countries have some form of PR; in Latin America, about 90% and in Africa, about 33% use variations of PR. In the English speaking Caribbean, only one (Guyana) of 17 countries uses PR at the national level.
In the English speaking Caribbean countries the single member plurality district system (SMPDS or SMD for short) is used to obtain majority rule. In this system, political parties compete among themselves for a majority of the people’s (or popular) vote. The party that wins a majority of constituencies, though not always a majority of the people’s vote, “wins” the election. For instance, imagine in St. Kitts there are 3 parties competing among themselves and the results show that Labor gets 45%; PAM 30%; PLP 25%; in spite of Labor’s less than 50% of the people’s vote, it however wins 6 of the 8 constituencies or districts. Because of winner-takes-all, Labor nonetheless gets to form the government because it obtained the single largest percentage (or plurality) of the people’s vote in St. Kitts. I believe such a process, practice and outcome like this should not be accepted or tolerated by Kittitians and Nevisians in the 21st century.
A second serious problem with WTA systems is that they enable ruling parties to reshape constituency boundaries with the explicit intent to maintain the ruling party’s grip on the rulership of the country. Further, to make assurance doubly sure, ruling parties do pack constituencies with individuals who they believe will vote for the ruling party. Winner-takes-all electoral systems are therefore excellent instruments for electoral cheating and election abuse. The people of St. Kitts and Nevis should say to those who wish to retain this system of political self-preservation, the following: This is the 21st century; it’s time to join the family of nations who sincerely seek to achieve a more perfect union or secure higher levels of integrity in their political system .
The pathway to a more perfect union in the federation of St. Kitts-Nevis must include an electoral system that denies politicians of any party any opportunity to compromise the integrity of the nation’s free and fair elections. For this reason this article offers for consideration an alternative to existing Caribbean winner-takes-all systems, which seemingly enables consistent misuse and abuse by the captains of the St. Kitts-Nevis polity. The electoral approach is defined as Assured Majority Rule with (Assured) Minority Representation (or AMR for short). It is being recommended because it would be a first step toward eliminating WTA/SMD, which encourages corrupt electoral practices of democracy.
Description of AMR
The major AMR characteristics include:
1. Elimination of single member districts (SMD): Instead of 11 separate single member voting districts, St. Kitts-Nevis will have only two multimember districts; one in St. Kitts, the other in Nevis. The island of St. Kitts will become one constituency but divided into 8 administrative districts; Nevis, likewise, will be one multimember constituency consisting of three administrative districts.
2. List PR: Each political party in the two islands will submit a list of candidates to voters equal to the number of seats that will represent each island in the national assembly. Thus, in St. Kitts, the Labor party will produce a list of 8 candidates, PAM or Team Unity 8; in Nevis, CCM 3 and NRP 3.
3. Gender Requirement: Each political party in St. Kitts will place on its party list at least three female candidates; in Nevis, each party will include at least one female candidate on its party list. Commitment to political empowerment of women through political leadership ought to be a high priority of Kittitians and Nevisians in the 21st century.
4. Party of choice vote: Each voter will have one vote; the voter may choose to vote for a particular candidate or simply vote for the entire party list. (The ballot paper will have two places where the voter may place his/her only vote. The voter will mark an X either for the party of his/her choice or candidate of his/her choice in one of the two boxes.) The voter understands that a vote for a candidate is his/her “preference vote” but it has the same value as voting for the entire party list. Here are two examples as to how the voter may vote and the effect of his/her vote: Let’s say a voter placed a preference vote for Ms. Marcella Liburd on the Labor party list; this would be, at the same time, a vote for the Labor party. Or on a larger scale, assume 50 of 100 voters chose to vote for candidates of their choice on the Team Unity list and the other 50 voters simply chose to vote for the entire Team Unity list; Team Unity will have received a total of 100 votes.
5. Caps/Limits: The party that controls the national assembly will be determined by the party or party coalition that secures 50%+1 of the popular vote. In St. Kitts any party with 50%+1 will receive a maximum of 5 (or 5 of 8) seats in the legislature; the remaining 3 seats will be allocated to the other party. If a party obtains 70% or more of the popular vote it will receive a maximum of 6 seats and the remaining 2 seats will be awarded to the party that obtained 30% of the popular vote.
6. In Nevis, each voter will be given one vote; the same procedure outlined for the St. Kitts constituency will apply to Nevis with one important exception. The political party that obtained 50%+1 of the popular vote will be capped at 2 seats in the national assembly. The other seat will be allocated to the party that won the remaining popular votes.
7. The logic and rationale governing these caps in St. Kitts and Nevis for parties winning a majority of the popular vote are based on (a) historical general elections data for St. Kitts from 1980 to 2010, and (b) the principle of proportional representation. Data suggest that there’s a 58 to 42 percent ratio of support for the respective winning and losing parties in St. Kitts. Thus, since AMR seeks to ensure a closer approximation of popular votes received and seats obtained in the national assembly, supporters of the party with less than 50%+1 will still receive representation in parliament at a proportion close to that of votes received in the election. The proposed AMR system, then, will bring a definite halt to the undemocratic notion of “all 8” or “all 3.” It is hoped that the rising generation of St. Kitts-Nevis will view this thirst for “all or nothing” or the winner-takes-all system to be an excellent candidate for extinction in the 21st century.
8. Benefits: AMR supports the operational necessity of majority rule, rather than promoting continual legislative deadlock. Given that St. Kitts is the larger of the two constituencies it will be better able to command a legislative majority but that majority will not always be guaranteed. St. Kitts will have to obtain a super majority of 70% of the popular vote if it is to govern the federation on its own. Thus, the second benefit of AMR: this electoral system increases the need for Nevis’ continuing participation in the political governance of the federation. It is hoped that a new political thinking among Kittitians and Nevisians will develop and aggressively promote a bond for joint governance of the federation. Third, parties that did not obtain 50%+1 will be represented in the legislature by some proportion close to the proportion of the people’s votes received. Fourth, under AMR, all voters are viewed as winners; Kittitians and Nevisians should cease supporting a political culture that rewards winners and degrades “losers;” losers are taxpayers too and therefore have a right to fair legislative representation in the governance of the federation.
These AMR elements, if adopted in St. Kitts and Nevis, will certainly contribute toward the achievement of a more perfect union.
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